How American High Schools Teach The Iraq War

It's hard to teach history that isn't quite history yet.
A U.S. soldier watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad, Iraq, April 9, 2003.
A U.S. soldier watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad, Iraq, April 9, 2003.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

American troops have been in Iraq longer than the average high school freshman has been alive. But for the most part, the deadliest U.S. military intervention since the Vietnam War remains a footnote in America’s social studies classrooms.

Fifteen years after the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, teachers and education leaders are still trying to find ways to teach students about an intervention that has yet to end.

The challenges teachers face are obvious: In a world where there is always too much to teach and standardized tests reign supreme, recent history tends to get left behind, even if this history is essential for understanding modern geopolitics.

Content requirements in social studies classrooms vary by state. Beyond that, experts say the handling of this issue likely varies by district. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed how some major textbooks handled the Iraq War for the war’s 10th anniversary and was impressed with the books’ complex and multi-sided perspectives on the issue.

But in cash-strapped districts, outdated textbooks are the norm.

“This is probably system-wide in Chicago, but our textbooks are pretty outdated and not in the best of shape at my school,” said Dave Stieber, a teacher at a public school on Chicago’s South Side. In Philadelphia, the school district’s budget allocated $0 per student for textbooks in 2014 and 2015.

The stereotype of teachers instructing their students to turn to a certain page in their books and begin working through the material isn’t accurate when it comes to covering more recent topics such as the Iraq War. Students are more likely learning from varied materials that include clips from news articles, books and other media. The content, and quality, can differ between schools and only adheres to state standards for curricula that are outlined in broad strokes.

In New York, for instance, the state Education Department includes Iraq only as one line in a subsection of its standards for teaching the role of the U.S. in the world post-1990. Iraq is grouped with the Sept. 11 attacks and the Patriot Act as part of teaching about America’s war on terror. Students are asked to examine the decision to invade Iraq and trace the course of the conflict.

Growing Up With The War

Despite the Iraq War playing an immense role in shaping current U.S. foreign policy and contributing to the emergence of the Islamic State militant group, many students today see the conflict in abstract terms.

“A lot of the kids don’t have a strong background in it. Obviously they know about 9/11, but they don’t know a lot past that,” said Adam Mogilevsky, a social studies teacher at Warren Early College High School in North Carolina. “They have a very beginner’s idea of what could have occurred, but a lot of it is misinformed.”

Unless students have a direct connection to Iraq, such as a family member in the armed services, teachers say kids in their classrooms rarely interrogate why the U.S. is in conflict. Instead, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are a kind of lifelong background noise that students have normalized and tuned out.

“When I started talking about these topics I really had to go back to the beginning. There wasn’t really any base-level knowledge,” said Tyler Bonin, a 33-year-old Iraq War veteran who teaches at a small private school in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area.

“It was a bit shocking at first, because this was something that defined my life,” he said. “Not only because I served in Iraq, but because 9/11 shaped my high school career — it happened towards the end of high school for me and I enlisted after that.”

With each new class of high school freshmen more and more removed from the start of the intervention, there seems to be a growing disconnect toward the conflict. Bonin believes this is in part because younger generations in America have fewer family ties to military service members than at any time since World War II, which means students have little reason to engage with the war on personal terms.

An Intervention That Never Really Ended

Another difficulty in teaching the war is that U.S. military involvement in Iraq is still ongoing, despite the large-scale reduction in troops stationed in the country during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Whereas history classes covering conflicts such as the Revolutionary War or Vietnam tend to focus on key turning points, battles and leading figures, teachers say that’s far more difficult with Iraq. The United States’ continued presence in Iraq, with thousands of troops still stationed in the country, provides no easy bookend for educators.

“It’s currently part of our lives, so we don’t know how the war is going to be treated in history. We don’t know the outcome yet, and that leads to uncertainty and the inability to teach it as clearly,” said Chris Bunin, a teacher at Albemarle High School on the edge of Charlottesville, Virginia.

As military operations have shifted in recent years to encompass coordinating the fight against ISIS, there is also greater complexity to the U.S. intervention and more context required for students to understand the military’s role in Iraq. Time constraints, and the need to cover a wide swath of basic background information, mean that it’s often impossible for teachers to address even major aspects of the war, let alone how U.S. goals have changed over its course.

In social studies classrooms, history is typically taught chronologically. Recent history, like the Iraq War, sometimes does not make the cut, especially as the intense pressures of standardized testing loom large.

“Yes, it is part of our teaching. But it depends on the teacher as to how much or how little gets taught,” said India Meissel, history and social studies chair at Lakeland High School in Virginia.

When Meissel teaches the war, she connects it to the Gulf War from the early 1990s, under President George H.W. Bush. After 31 years in the classroom, she believes you cannot teach one without the other.

But she doesn’t blame teachers who don’t get to this war, or who only teach a superficial overview.

In some ways, it’s too soon to delve into complicated dynamics, says Meissel, who is also president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies. She points to the 2017 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, which had the eventual victors down for most of the game. It was only at the last second that the Patriots came back for the win.

“The in-depth portion will come in time,” she said.